On Tuesday, March 22nd, ISIS carried out a series of terror attacks in Brussels, targeting the main airport of Saventem and the metro system. Thirty-one people were killed and hundreds more were wounded. Authorities believe the attack was made in response to the arrest of Salah Abdelslam, the only remaining member of the Islamic State cell that led the November Paris attacks. And in response to the terror attacks, the world is giving ISIS exactly what they want: a xenophobic and divided response.
The Rise of Xenophobia
Terrorist attacks and refugee inflows throughout Europe have increased support for far right parties. These conservative parties are known for their nationalist and anti-immigration rhetoric. In October, Poland ushered in the Law and Justice Party (PiS) after eight years of centrist rule. It was the first time that party had won an absolute majority since 1989. The leader of the PiS, Andrezej Duda, has made such comments as, “migrants carry very dangerous diseases.”
The Front Nationale, a far right party in France, took first place in France’s regional elections for first time ever this past December. The Socialist Party was so concerned by this that they withdrew their own candidates and shifted their party’s support to the Republicans, thereby blocking the Front-Nationale.
Xenophobic parties are gaining steam in Germany and the United States, which is concerning considering the impact each country’s policy decisions have on the rest of the world. Angela Merkel’s citizens are questioning her humanitarian policies after 1.1 million asylum seekers arrived in Germany last year. She implemented an open door policy in late August, stating, “We live based on shared humanity, on charity.”
Support for Merkel was already declining throughout the fall, prior to the Cologne crisis. As early as October, a poll conducted for German TV ZDF showed that 51% of Germans thought that Germany could not cope with the influx of refugees. And this was before the Cologne crisis. On New Year’s Eve, 516 complaints were filed in Cologne, 40% of which were sexual assault claims. The ensuing investigation focused on people of North African origin, and that emphasis only added fuel to the xenophobic rhetoric already present in Germany.
The American frontrunner Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, frequently says that the United States should not accept Syrian refugees, likening them to a Trojan Horse. He has proposed ideas that include building a fence on the border to keep out Mexican immigrants, and criticized Merkel’s open door policy. He furthermore suggested the United States should start surveillance of mosques.
A Divided Response
For decades, Europeans have chosen not to arms themselves militarily, both for economic and for philosophical reasons. But now that they want to use force they are at an impasse; they can either build a fence or make an alliance.
The United States has been hesitant to get involved in the Middle East because of its previous experience in Iraq. The US also thought the instability Syria could be confined to within those borders. Europeans detested President Bush because of his interventionist policies and now they have the president they always wanted, but the irony is that now Europeans seek military support from a more hesitant US.
German Foreign Minister Joshka Fisher said that the United States “quite obviously, is no longer willing-or able-to play its old role.”
Putin sees the void created by an absent America as an opportunity to promote Russian influence. Moscow has been funding many of the far right and mainstream political parties in Europe. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Shröder’s Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) has received just such support, and he has returned the favor by pressing for normalized relations with Russia.
The leader of the nationalist Liberal Democrat Party in Russia, Vladimir Shitonovsky, said, “terrorist attacks are happening in Europe and they will spread all over it. That is beneficial for us. Let them perish and die.” He says the attacks will spur Europe to “beg” for Russian support. Alexey Pushkov, a close friend of Putin, suggested that European security will only be achieved by aligning with Russia.
What is Russia doing?
The Russian air campaign has been credited with shifting the course of the war in favor to Assad’s government. But Russia began to withdraw military support from Syria on the same day as the UN-backed peace talks resumed in Geneva. It has also scaled back its bombing of anti-government militias and has focused its attacks on the Islamic State and on the al-Nusra Front.
Rarely has Putin ever complimented the United States. He did so after the Thursday meeting, saying, “We are aware that the groundwork we have on Syria has only been possible thanks to the position of the political-supreme political leadership of the United States, specifically the position of President Obama.” He added, “And I really hope that today’s visit will help us reconcile positions on or help make progress on both Syria and Ukraine.”
So what is the point?
A xenophobic response to Islamic extremism in Europe is not the answer. Building walls, closing borders, and supporting anti-immigrant rhetoric victimizes a group of people based on their ethnic or religious identity. The terrorists in Paris attack were nationals of France and Belgium. The problem is not with keeping terrorists out; it’s preventing the radicalization of a dissatisfied and alienated youth.
It will be problematic if Russia continues to support the development of these far right parties, as well as throwing its weight behind Assad. This tension between the United States and Syria will not result in another Cold War. However, if more far right parties gain power, a desperate Europe facing a reluctant America will lead to shifting alliances. The western response to terrorism and the refugee crisis will have widespread consequences.